Exciting new finds of stone tools on the south side of the island of Crete have finally and conclusively shown that hunter-gatherers were present from around 10,000 BC.
Whether or not there is yet a much earlier Palaeolithic evidence (700,000-130,000 BC) is still under discussion: if correct, this would imply the presence of Homo erectus or the like – predecessors to Homo sapiens.
The Neolithic Period
The story of the arrival of agriculture on Crete and its first ‘urban’ settlement goes back deep enough into the aeons. The first traces of this date to around 7000 BC. Long-term archaeological research confirms this stage to run on to around 3500-3000 BC.
It is thought that these immigrants came to the island from the Asia Minor coastline or - less likely - from North Africa.
The Neolithic era lasts for four millennia: a period of internal development. An important event towards the end of this time was the start of olive cultivation, so determining to a large measure the self-sufficiency of Crete in terms of produce.
This long span can be divided into four:
- Early Neolithic (7000-5800 BC): the first immigrants arrive at Knossos, and create the first permanent and the main settlement on Crete;
- Middle Neolithic (5800-5300 BC): the exploitation of the island sees habitation extended to altitudes of up to some 500 m; Knossos has expanded into a super-site; others, much smaller, dot the island;
- Late Neolithic (5300-4500 BC): settlement reaches higher altitudes and more places. Knossos is still the only major settlement. The houses of this date had many rooms, within which is the important feature of a fixed hearth. As well as Knossos, there are flourishing settlements at Festos, Gortyna, Kastelli Chania, the Lassithi upland plain (at 800 m asl), the Sitia plateau and several cave sites. The ceramics have a greater variety of shapes and styles; clay figurines are known – bulls, birds, men and women. Stone and bone tools are plentiful;
- Final Neolithic (4500-3500/3000 BC): saw a dramatic expansion – all the way up the mountains, with many more sites and ones of different categories. By now virtually all Crete is occupied – from one shore to the other.
New immigration from the East, eventually merging with the earlier populations towards the end of the Neolithic on into the early Bronze Age, is responsible for the development of new life styles, albeit with a common base: the south coast and the Mesara is one focus, the other main one being the north coastal zone.
Thus begins the astonishing Minoan Civilization.